Order my new book by 5/16 for exclusive bonuses. Click here.
A big part of being emotionally intelligent is understanding what’s going on in the minds of others. But doing that is really difficult. (So difficult I’ve been worried I broke my mirror neurons – and that’s why I’ve had 7 years of bad luck.)
We’re not mind readers. But given the pandemic and its negative impact on our social lives, we need the facts more than ever. So I went all Hardy Boys on this one and dug for the scientific answers we need…
The first section of my upcoming book Plays Well With Others stress-tests the old maxim “Don’t judge a book by its cover” — and tells us how we can get better at it. Below is a short excerpt from the book with a few powerful tips to help get you started.
Alrighty, let’s get to it…
Would you like to be able to read the minds of others? To know what those around you think and feel? Of course you would. We’re not crazy for wanting this ability. Research shows even a slight edge here is quite powerful. “Accurate person perception” has a conga line of personal and interpersonal benefits. Studies show that those who possess it are happier, less shy, better with people, have closer relationships, get bigger raises, and receive better performance reviews. When we look more specifically at those who are better interpreters of body language and nonverbal communication, we see similar positive effects.
Wow. Sign me up. Right? Only one problem: on average, the vast majority of us are absolutely horrible at these skills. I mean, comically bad. University of Chicago professor Nicholas Epley has found that when you’re dealing with strangers, you correctly detect their thoughts and feelings only 20 percent of the time. (Random chance accuracy is 5 percent.) Now, of course, you’re better when dealing with people you know… but not by much. With close friends you hit 30 percent, and married couples peak at 35 percent. In school that’s an F. Actually, it’s probably closer to a G. Whatever you think is going on in your spouse’s head, two-thirds of the time, you’re wrong.
Yet here’s the truly funny part: we think we’re awesome at reading others. Ask people to rate their partner’s self-esteem, and they get it right 44 percent of the time. But they’re confident about their guesses 82 percent of the time. And the longer you’ve been together, the more your confidence goes up. Accuracy? No, that doesn’t improve. But you sure do get more confident.
How can we be so off base? And yet so confident in our inaccuracy? The technical term is egocentric anchoring. Epley says we’re too caught in our own perspective: “Survey after survey finds that most people tend to exaggerate the extent to which others think, believe, and feel as they do.” We’re too trapped inside our own heads. Even when we try to take the perspective of others, studies show our accuracy doesn’t improve. Yeah, it reduces egocentric bias, but what we replace it with isn’t any better. When we ask others questions, our accuracy goes up, but we don’t do that enough. Usually, we just play in our own heads with our own stories about what’s going on and replace bad assumptions with different bad assumptions.
So who is notably better at passively reading the thoughts and feelings of others? If I was forced to give an answer in one word, I’d say nobody. That’s not true, strictly speaking. Obviously, some folks eke out an edge. But there seems to be a hard ceiling—and a rather low one at that. Mental health issues can confer superpowers in one area but are often balanced out by deficiencies in another. We’re all just pretty bad at this—while remaining blissfully unaware of our poor showing.
I know what some people are thinking: “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Aren’t women more accurate people readers than men?” Oh boy. Time to play hopscotch on the third rail. Political agendas and gender debates aside, in your heart of hearts, do you think there’s a difference between males and females when it comes to reading people? And what do you think a dump truck full of scientific studies says? (Drum roll, please.)
Yes, women are better. Female superiority in detecting nonverbal communication is well documented. It’s only about a 2 percent edge, but it’s very consistent across ages, testing methods, and cultures. That said, it’s not uniform. Women are no better at lie detection than men. The advantages are more pronounced in detecting facial expressions and in emotion recognition.
So why do you think women are better at this than men? Turns out it’s not the direct result of biology. It’s actually due to one of the things that can make all of us better mind readers: motivation.
When studies dig deep to look for the underlying cause, what many find is that women, on average, are more motivated to read people accurately than men are. They are simply more interested and try harder. A 2008 study by Geoff Thomas and Gregory Maio really drives the point home. What happens when researchers inform guys that being empathic will make women more interested in them? Bingo. Male motivation increased as did men’s ability to accurately perceive thoughts and feelings. Of course, there’s a flip side to this: when motivation drops, so does accuracy. Husbands in unhappy marriages can read random women’s nonverbals better than those of their wives. Oof.
To neuroscientists, all of this is totally unsurprising. They know just how lazy our brains are most of the time. Motivation is almost a neuroscientific panacea. Giving a crap makes our brains better at almost everything because our default is barely paying attention to anything. Michael Esterman, a professor at Boston University and cofounder of its Attention and Learning Lab, says, “The science shows that when people are motivated, either intrinsically, i.e., they love it; or extrinsically, i.e., they will get a prize, they are better able to maintain consistent brain activity, and maintain readiness for the unexpected.”
When people are judging romantic partners, accuracy goes up. And by the same token, when a study had anxiously attached women eavesdrop on their boyfriends talking to beautiful female researchers, guess what happened? Yup, their ability to correctly predict his answers to questions increased. But when there’s no loss or gain, our brains just idle along.
In this kind of book I’m supposed to coin catchy names for core principles, aren’t I? You know, like “The Five Second Rule” and all that. Wouldn’t want the genre police coming after me. I hereby dub this The Lazy Brain Axiom™.
So the first step to being better at reading people is to be curious. Even better is to provide yourself with some sort of external gain or loss that motivates you.
Problem is, even when sufficiently motivated, we can improve our skills only so much. We’re just naturally not that good at reading people. Motivation improves accuracy, but only with people who are sufficiently expressive and readable. If you’re dealing with someone who has a Botox-level poker face, motivation won’t help much. This leads to our second big insight: readability is more important than reading skills. People-reading skills aren’t that variable, but how readable people are ranges widely. Most of the reason we’re able to read people isn’t that we’re skilled; it’s that they’re expressive.
(If you’re enjoying this, please preorder the book.)
So as far as reading people’s thoughts and feelings goes, if “judging a book by its cover” means only passively evaluating people, then the myth is already pretty close to busted. We’ll give the maxim a fighting chance and assume that’s not what it means. But it still seems like we’re stuck. Should we just accept that we’re going to routinely misinterpret others and there’s not much we can do about it? Nope. To graduate first in my class, I can either improve my grades or make everyone else do worse. We’re going to focus on the latter, just like I did in school. So we’ll call this The Eric in High School Theorem™.
Since we can’t improve our people-reading skills that much, we have to focus our efforts on making others more readable.
Instead of passively analyzing them like Sherlock Holmes does on TV, we need to actively elicit stronger signals to get more telling reactions. The first and easiest method is to manipulate context. Would you learn more about someone over a cup of tea or by playing football with them? The first might get you more information (if you can trust what they say), but the latter would organically show you how they make decisions and strategize, and whether they bend the rules. The wider the variety of stimuli you expose them to, the more facets of who they are will become clear.
Bringing other people into the mix is powerful too. Having third parties present can show different sides of someone. (If you only dealt with someone in the presence of their boss, would you think you were seeing the full them?) And don’t talk about the weather. Emotional reactions are more honest, and “safe” conversation topics turn people into politicians, conveying little of substance. When researchers had people on first dates talk about STDs, abortion, and other taboo topics, they not only learned more about the other person, they reported enjoying the conversation more.
And as we’ve established, our own brains are often the problem here. We have a tendency to pay attention to the wrong signals. Which brings us to the issue of body language. And everybody just loves body language. But the literature is consistent—the value of consciously analyzing body language is grossly overrated. There’s a reason nobody has ever created a “Body Language Rosetta Stone.” Nonverbal cues are complex, context dependent, and idiosyncratic. We can never be certain what is causing what. Yes, they’re shivering, but you can’t be sure if that’s because they’re nervous or because they’re cold. And this point is critical: body language is utterly useless without a baseline. Some people always fidget, and it means nothing. Other people rarely fidget, and it’s very telling. But if you don’t know their default, you’re just letting your brain spin fanciful stories again.
Truth be told, if you wanted to focus on something, skip body language and laser focus on their speech. When we can hear someone but not see them, empathic ability declines only about 4 percent. When we can see someone but not hear them, the drop-off is a whopping 54 percent. Pay less attention to whether they cross their legs and more attention to when their voice changes…
Okay, that’s enough excerpt to get you started but there’s plenty more in the book. You’ll learn how to size people up quickly – and make better first impressions yourself. It also covers how to detect lies like a professional interrogator (but nicely.) And much, much more.
I want to subscribe!